NORTHRIDGE – The small vials filled with potentially life-saving vaccine sit in a refrigerator at the Cal State Northridge health center, available to some, unreachable for others. Ayu Nishikawa is debating whether she should get inoculated with Gardasil, which protects against certain strains of human papilloma virus, or HPV, that can cause cervical cancer. The disease kills 3,700 American women a year. “I don’t know how safe it is, or if it has side effects,” Nishikawa said of the $125-a-dose vaccine. “It’s about both cost and the questions. “It’s still a new thing and it seems lots of students don’t know about it all that well.” Most insurance plans cover the vaccine, and uninsured girls ages 9 to 18 years are able to get inoculated for free through the state’s Vaccines for Children program. But that leaves some younger women who have aged out of their parents’ health plans, or who can’t afford any insurance, out of the loop, including those who fall back on Family Pact. In fiscal 2004-05, nearly 1.6 million clients were served under Family Pact. Of those, 63 percent were ages 20-34, and 89 percent were women. State health officials said there are no plans to fund Gardasil through Family Pact because, they say, the vaccine is more effective in younger girls who are less likely to be sexually active and therefore have yet to contract any form of herpes. However, Merck, the company that makes Gardasil, said there has been some misinformation about who should and shouldn’t be vaccinated. Officials there say the vaccine can protect those 18 to 26, even those who have had one type of HPV. The vaccine protects against four strains. “We’ve tried to stress that the vaccine can be useful to women who already had one or more HPV types,” said Marc Boston, spokesman for Merck. “It’s important to know that if they have had HPV, this doesn’t mean they won’t benefit.” Current research is under way on a similar vaccine for boys and older women, Boston said. The company’s Web site, www.Merck.com, has information on a patient assistance program for those 19 and older who can’t afford the vaccine. “The assistance is highly applicable to California to those who just don’t have the means to receive vaccines,” Boston said. Meanwhile, local clinics and hospitals are seeing an increase in interest in the vaccine, which is good news to providers, even as the state Assembly’s Health Committee will debate Tuesday whether to make the vaccine mandatory for girls entering the seventh grade beginning in 2009. “We had 170 doses (for girls) and went through that in four days,” said Debra Rosen, director of public health and health education for the Northeast Valley Health Corp. “Our providers are very excited about the prospect of this vaccine,” Rosen said. “It will make a significant impact in reducing cervical cancer and genital warts.” And the current debate may actually be increasing interest, said Dr. Charlene E.L. Huang, who specializes in adolescent and pediatric medicine at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center. “Quite a few patients have brought the vaccine up,” Huang said. “I think it’s an indicator that the information is out there, that the population is becoming more aware of the issues.” However, Huang said, there is still some concern about inoculating girls as young as 9. “There’s more concern about its safety,” she said. “Some parents feel it’s too new. And those who take a more religious or moral standpoint express concern, because they feel their daughter would not be sexually active that soon.” [email protected] (818) 713-3664 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Nishikawa, a 24-year-old women’s studies major and assistant director of the Women’s Center at CSUN, has health insurance through Family Pact, a state-funded plan. But Family Pact doesn’t cover Gardasil, even though it does provide for condoms and birth control pills. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries, but only three patients so far have gotten it,” said Kristal Gordon, a pharmacist for CSUN’s Klotz Student Health Center. “It has to do with the cost.” The rising interest in Gardasil and questions about affordability couldn’t be more timely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last month that found one in four U.S. women, ages 14 to 59, has some form of HPV. While the CDC recommends that girls ages 11 to 12 get inoculated, the study found the virus was most common in women ages 20 to 24. In Los Angeles County, an estimated 600 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, with incidence among Latinas over two times higher than the national rate, according to a University of Southern California cancer surveillance research report. African-American and Korean women also have higher risk for the disease, the study found.